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Scientists spot rare dolphin hybrid

31 July 2018

Fast forward to past year, when a team of scientists with the Cascadia Research Collective on an expedition near the island of Kauai spotted a unusual creature - not quite a melon-headed whale, not fully a rough-toothed dolphin.

Researchers in Hawaii say they have discovered a whale-dolphin hybrid, which is essentially a mule of the sea.

Kimberly A Wood/Cascadia Research The hybrid is in the front, with the melon-headed whale that researchers suspect is the mother. Aww!

The researchers also determined that the hybrid is a male and that he stayed particularly close to its melon-headed whale companion for the duration of the observation period.

The whale-dolphin hybrid is the first recorded example of an offspring of melon-headed whales and rough-toothed dolphins, and only the third recorded sighting of a Delphinidae hybrid in the wild. But as Quanta Magazine explains, isolated occurrences of individual hybrids aren't typically considered new species, either because the hybrids can not reproduce or because lone hybrids are apt to just get reabsorbed into existing species by mating with an animal that's the same species as one of its parents.

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"Such hybridization, where the genetic data of one species is integrated into another, has always been suspected as a source of taxonomic uncertainty in dolphins, and this case lends support to that", Baird added.

The cross-species hybridization may seem freakish, but is made possible by the fact that melon-headed whales aren't actually whales. Researchers believe a melon-headed whale was the mother of the hybrid.

It also isn't the first discovery of hybridization in the family - there have also been cases of bottlenose dolphin/false killer whale (Pseudorca crassidens) hybrids, known as Wolphins, and common/bottlenose dolphin hybrids.

But a hybrid can also tell us something interesting about animal interactions.

He said: "Calling it something like a wholphin doesn't make any sense".

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Some other news organisations have described the melon-headed whale and rough-toothed dolphin hybrid as a new species. The solitary pair were "found associating with rough-toothed dolphins", the report read.

Still, some dolphin hybrids have successfully reproduced. In the photo above, the hybrid whale-dolphin swims in the foreground next to a melon-headed whale.

Baird said that discovering hybrids can have "important implications" for the species involved.

Hybrids generally occur when there is a decline in the population in one of the parental species, so scientists will be looking out for such a decline.

In a report published this month, the researchers said it had "pigmentation and morphological characteristics suggesting it may be a hybrid".

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Scientists spot rare dolphin hybrid